28th May 2017 - Hugh Perry
This passage is a sort of ‘story so far’ that picks up in more detail the action from the close of Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel finishes by saying:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:50-53)
Luke’s Gospel is a journey from the countryside of Galilee to Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish world. In that closing Luke has given a preview of what is to come and returned the disciples to Jerusalem.
There they will be commissioned as Apostles by the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost festival and sent out on the Acts journey which the Risen Christ makes through his apostles from Jerusalem to the centre of their world—Rome.
Barclay notes that throughout his ministry Jesus laboured under the disadvantage that his message was that the kingdom of God was at hand but his Jewish audience always saw that in terms of them being the favoured people who would be given world domination by God.
Jesus sees the kingdom of God as society here on earth functioning the way God intended and no matter how haphazard history appears to be it is working out some divine purpose. Therefore we should not speculate when it might come to an end but play our part in living the divine purpose into reality.
Luke is the only Gospel writer to include the ascension and it is important in his narrative in explaining why the first disciples met regularly with the risen Christ but his readers do not.
It is also important that Jesus ascends into heaven so he can send the Holy Spirit down from heaven to commission the apostles.
John 17: 1-11
We now read from John’s Gospel the prayer that follows Jesus’ farewell speech.
It is part of the structure of an ancient biography that the hero should have a deathbed speech which sums up the hero’s life and makes predictions about the restored future those close to the hero will enjoy.
As Jesus was executed, and therefore separated from his disciples, the timing of the dying speech is problematic so John has Jesus’ farewell discourse at the Passover just before Jesus’ arrest.
The next chapter begins, ‘After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden.’ (John18:1) That garden is the scene of the arrest.
Of special interest as we listen to the final verse of this reading is that, as Jesus prays for his disciples, he speaks of himself as already dead: ‘and now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.’
This is consistent with the Johannine Jesus who is always in control and far more Risen Christ than Jesus of History.
Raymond Brown Quotes Bultmann as saying that Jesus’ ‘work does not end with his earthly life but in a real sense only begins with the end of that life’. Brown backs that up by pointing out that knowing God is not just an intellectual matter.
Knowing God involves living as God would have us live and living in loving communion with other Christians and we know God through Jesus Christ.
Bill Loader writes that what John is saying in abstract and spiritual imagery actually takes us into being a community of compassion which touches every area of life and challenges all systems and instances where it is absent.
In world of Luke’s Gospel we are told that the women who came with Jesus from Galilee observed Jesus’ burial then after the Sabbath they came to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. (Luke 24:2-4)
These two angelic beings brought the news of the resurrection to the women at the empty tomb and now they bring the same news to the disciples as they move into Luke’s post resurrection story of the emerging church in the book of Acts.
They said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you to into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11)
I often wish that Luke hadn’t written that because it encourages contemporary Christians to expect Jesus to suddenly beam down from a heavenly star ship and sort the world out for us. Certainly, just like the generations before us there is a real need right now for that to happen. When we look at the world news it is easy to think that we live in the worst time ever and only divine intervention will save humanity and the whole planet. However when I look at photographs of the blitz in London or lines of malnourished men women and children being marched into gas chambers and their bodies burned in open pits I wonder what worst really looks like.
Furthermore we need to remember that what the disciples did not understand about Jesus was that they expected him to sort out their world. Even in their post resurrection discussion in today’s Acts reading they press that point.
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?’ (Acts 1:6)
That was the issue throughout Jesus’ ministry and what was expected of a messiah. We could even assume it was what John the Baptist believed as he called people to repentance. It is also one of the great failings of western democracy as huge numbers of people refuse to vote because they simply want to get on with their lives and have some hero run the world for them. Some knight in shining armour, but they forget that Sir Lancelot had an affair with Guinevere and the kingdom collapsed in the ensuing chaos.
If we look more closely at the words of the heavenly messengers we can hear a different message that has nothing to do with just waiting around until Jesus returns. This Jesus, who has been taken up from you to into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11)
The Jesus they had just lost sight of was the Risen Christ who in Luke’s Gospel was met on the Emmaus road. It was on the Emmaus Road where two disciples’ hearts were strangely warmed as scripture was expounded and they met the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread.
That incident describes a spiritual experience while reading and expounding scripture which was echoed on the 24th of May 1738 by none other than John Wesley. On that particular evening he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate Street where someone read from Luther's Preface to the Epistle to Romans. Wesley wrote that at about 8:45pm. ‘While he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed’.
Those first followers of Jesus may well have felt that even the spiritual experience of Christ had past from their view. But the message from those two men in shining white was that the Divine Spirit would be encountered at the feast of Pentecost and at last the disciples would recognise that Christ was alive in each of them. Each disciple would understand that if the world was going to change and lives were to be transformed they would be the agents of that change. That was certainly what happened in John Wesley’s case where he and Methodism played a vital part in transforming the world of their time and left an enduring passion among all Christians for social justice.
Luke tells us that the power for such change, from frightened disciples to empowered apostles was the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit that united those first disciples with Christ and therefore with God and with each other. In next week’s exciting episode we will focus on that Spirit coming down on each of them as the Luke’s Spirit passing relay from Jesus’ baptism concludes at the feast of Pentecost.
That unity in the Spirit is stressed in our gospel reading and is the close of Jesus’ farewell speech we have been following in recent weeks.
Jesus appropriately finishes that speech with a prayer. In that prayer Jesus makes the connection between God and the disciples as he prays:
‘And now I am coming to you. Holy father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one’. (John 17: 11)
That closing verse of our reading acknowledges that the man Jesus will no longer be with his followers but they, and therefore future followers, will be connected with each other and with God through Christ. John’s long convoluted arguments are hard to follow but the important point is that although we, like the gospel writer, live in post resurrection times we still have a connection with the divine through Christ and that connection reminds us of our common humanity. That triune connection is a spiritual connection that also empowers the followers of Jesus, including us, to transform our world. We are not called to wait for Jesus’ return. We are called to carry on the work that Jesus began and in so doing we are united with him in Spirit.
At the beginning of the prayer Jesus claims the power to give eternal life but then he goes on to define what that means. ‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’. (John 17:2)
When we looked at that in our Wednesday morning study group we suddenly realised that taken in context that definition promises eternal life for Jesus mission. We all, by virtue of knowing God though what we know of Jesus Christ, are called to carry on the work of Christ, generation upon generation.
We are not to be so heavenly minded we are no earthly use. We are not to sit around waiting for Jesus’ return. We are to recognise our unique connection with God through Christ and get on with the work of Christ in our time and place.
Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you to into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11)
That was what the heavenly messengers said to those first apostles. It is also that is a relevant message to people today who continue to be frozen in pious inaction as they wait for Christ’s return.
In the forward to his translation of the book of Acts J. B. Phillips explained why he changed the title to The Young Church in Action. The book, he explained, was not as it is traditionally titled The Acts of The Apostils because it only contains some acts of some apostles. Likewise it isn’t a definitive outline of the early church in action because the early church spread relatively quickly over a wide area. What is more important is the reality that the church is still in action and we are called by today’s readings to be part of that action.
The eternity of Christ is made real by our Christ inspired actions in our world.
 William Barclay The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, (Edinburgh: St Andrews Press:1976 ),pp.,9-14
 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John XII-XXI (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1966), pp.751-752.